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It’s Great DART is Considering Bus Rapid Transit. But, Per Usual, It’s Not Enough.

Let's show some love to the lowly DART bus.  (photo by Ethene Lin/Flickr)
Let’s show some love to the lowly DART bus. (photo by Ethene Lin/Flickr)

Last week DART finally connected its light rail system to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. Hurray. Raise a glass. Pat yourself on the back. Finished? Okay, moving on.

Today the public transit system said it is considering another should-have-happened-years-ago option for the future: the introduction of bus rapid transit lines to connect suburbs. What’s bus rapid transit (or BRT to transit nerds), you ask? Well, it’s simply a long range bus line that pretends to function like a train, only it’s much cheaper than building rail. The buses are longer, they run in dedicated lanes or roads, and they stop at actual stations. The most famous success story for BRT is Bogotá, Columbia. You can find out more about that here.

DART’s proposed BRT line would run along the route that has been set aside for the Cotton Belt rail extension, connecting Plano and Fort Worth. DART has wanted to build that rail line for years, but it’s really expensive and it doesn’t look like funding will come through any time soon. So, why not BRT? Good idea. Do it. After all, the hub-and-spoke DART system does make regional transport impractical. Who wants to go through downtown to get from Plano to Carrollton? (See, I don’t hate suburbs. I’m thinking about you guys out there.)

But here’s my question: why stop there? Now that DART is connected to DFW Airport, it’s time for the transit authority to start rethinking its goals. As this article from a few weeks ago outlines, the next to-do list items for DART are finishing the Oak Cliff streetcar and a Blue Line extension to the UNT Dallas campus. They are worthwhile improvements (the streetcar as a development catalyst, if less than an actual transit option). But the problem is none of these things actually address Dallas’ real public transit need, namely, a public transit system that is actually useful.

What does that mean? Well, let’s dig back into this Brookings Institute study from 2011 which analyzed the public transportation systems in some 100 municipalities. Here’s something that might surprise you: according to the study, the most effective and efficient public transit systems aren’t the ones in big cities known for transit, like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. Rather, they are systems in places that have simply figured out the best way to connect people with their places of employment using a variety of modes of transportation. The important factors are overall coverage, service frequency, and job access.

If we compare one of the best cities for public transit with Dallas we can see why DART is not a very good public transit system even though it boasts more light rail miles than anywhere else this side of Saturn. Denver, which, like Dallas, offers a mix of light rail and bus service, ranks sixth in the Brooking study while Dallas is 89th. Why? First off, Denver has really good coverage. About 84 percent of working-age residents live near a transit stop, and 98 percent of low income residents. Secondly, 47 percent of jobs in the area are reachable by transit within 90 minutes. The median wait for any rush hour transit vehicle is 8.1 minutes. Compare that to Dallas, which has only 46 percent coverage (around 71 percent for low income), 19 percent of jobs reachable via transit within 90 minutes, and an 11.1 minute median wait.

And here’s the kicker: Denver is at the start of a blitz in transportation investment, with new plans in the works to add additional miles of rail and BRT. In other words, while DART has reached one of its huge milestone accomplishments – touching DFW airport – it is still a scarily usable system that is being outpaced by western, car-centric cities with similar urban density (Denver metro area density is 3698 per square mile, Dallas density is 3645 per square mile). These stats reflect more than the inadequacy of DART’s light rail system (notice how even in its infant stage, Denver manages to get a loop in the line, which makes the system much more usable). The real problem is DART’s inadequate bus system.

DART buses, as anyone who has ridden them knows, are impossible. They don’t come frequently enough, the routing is difficult to figure out, and many trips require at least one transfer. Mix transfers and infrequency and you pile on trip time, making the system scarcely convenient. Then add in the fact that DART’s bus system doesn’t feature some of the other amenities cities have employed to make them more usable, like stops that are designed to look like stations and designated lanes to cut down travel times. In short, DART has a bus system that, like its rail network, is spread wide and spread thin. It provides mediocre to poor service for everyone, rather than good, usable service to a majority of people.

Buses are not a sexy way to get around, but if a system is well-designed, it can be an effective one. For all of the cities on the top of the Brookings study, buses are a key aspect in their network. Now that DART has completed its extension to the airport, it’s time for the public transit authority to readdress and rethink its bus system. Yes, a BRT line in the burbs is a good idea. But it’s only a start. We need BRTs and improved bus routes all through the center part of the city. We just need a way to get around.

I think the first step is simple. Everyone on the DART board needs to take the bus to work every day for a month. Then, let’s see how much they want to push for change.

8 comments on “It’s Great DART is Considering Bus Rapid Transit. But, Per Usual, It’s Not Enough.

  1. Denver proper has a higher density than Dallas. I’ll go check the maps but I’m going to bet that Denver – because of topography – has a density that lends itself to transit.

  2. I was in Chicago last week and I noticed two things there: 1.) if I missed a bus during rush hour, I had to wait eight minutes for the next one, not twenty…and, 2.) there was no point where, as long as a city street was in my field of vision, I did not see a bus. They were readily available, if needed.

    For a transit system to work, you need consistent frequencies in the right places. There’s really no excuse for having to wait 20+ minutes for a bus within Dallas proper during daytime hours (0600-1900). Make it more convenient for people to ride public transit and they will ride.

    (…and, once we’ve figured that out, it’s high time we make the rail station platforms accessible to paying customers only…)

  3. Don’t a million people live in Chicago proper and that incredible strip of urban sprawling north of it? Chicago seems to have most of its office space downtown. Then there is the Miracle Mile of retail which also has lots of office space and is wholly outside of its downtown. In contrast, while Uptown Dallas is growing as an office market, downtown Dallas is still shrinking by way of office space being converted over to residences. Las Colinas, the Telecom Corridor, Stemmons Corridor, and Addison all challenge Dallas proper in terms of employment numbers. Meanwhile, downtown Dallas as it continues to dissolve as a retail center takes on more of the characteristics of a suburb.
    It is any wonder that buses run so infrequently?

  4. Dallas proper has a large river cutting through it, a large urban forest to the south of it, an urban airport to the northwest of it, and a few urban lakes which all work to dilute the city’s density. It also has a huge industrial district snaking along the river which resulted from large amounts of land being freed up when the levee system was built to control flooding. More than any other city in the state of Texas, Dallas is the only one to have these kinds of commercial centers surrounding its downtown. Well, Houston does have some meaningful neighborhoods surrounding its downtown but they have always been more Bohemian in characteristic than the kind of planned commercial that now exists around downtown Dallas. We are talking Deep Ellum, Uptown Dallas, the Dallas Design District, Turtle Creek, and Knox Park. Added to this, because of the way the Trinity river would flood before the levees, the area of Oak Cliff has long had its own commercial district within North Oak Cliff separate from downtown Dallas. Indeed, of all the urban areas I just mentioned, the only one that didn’t come ready made for development was Uptown Dallas.
    I also think one should take urban retail into account when talking about density. Dallas proper managed to preserve lots of this type of retail during the mall building craze. Concerning luxury shopping which Dallas proper has lots, DART never builds to such upscale types of shopping.

  5. Did you ever read about the Greenspoint phenomenon in Houston? It was renamed “gunspoint” by locals. One of the factors leading to the demise of Greenspoint was the Metro bus line that was run out to it. The commercial area quickly eroded into a modern business center surrounded by a ghetto. Well, the ghetto was always there as it was hidden by the glamour of retail which typically gets built up along the freeways in the Bohemia of Houston. Another factor leading to the failure of Greenspoint was the way the retail arm of Exxon tried going into that area and gentrify it by force. Yet another factor was the huge amounts of efficiency apartments built in the area and they way the landlords allowed them to deteriorate unto ruins.

    So, I consider DARTS suggestion of running a bus line to be a veiled threat.

  6. “… it’s high time we make the rail station platforms accessible to paying customers only…”

    Once area voters turned down heavy rail, the current honor system became inevitable. This is how LRT operates the world over. Most everybody pays anyway except the homeless, and there’s really nothing that can be done about them except to keep them moving. Any effort to restrict access to platforms would result in a system that is ugly to look at and less user-friendly, and it would cost more money than it would recover.

  7. * The Trinity Parkway/Tollway is not needed, or, is being Planned in the wrong Spot;

    It should be connected @ I35, where it connects with I30,
    and should run along the levy, to I45.

    Making it Possible for I345 to be demolished.

    And it should run along the levy area until it reaches I35; With Exits to Ceasar Chavez Blvd.

    This would alleviate congestion, for when and if I345 no longer exists,
    by re-routing South/North traffic ‘Around’ .

    Those that are trying to get from East to West and vice-versa (on I30)
    can still do so, since most of it is below ground level; OR
    a tunnel can be made.

    Who knows, maybe another Deck park on that as well.

    Added with lightRail along every freeway route….
    Possibilities are enormous.

    ******************************************************************

    As for ‘Walkability’ and a source of revenue…

    Light-Rail is actually more important than more freeway ;and the best place(s) to lay
    track IS along-side the freeways. (!)

    If Dallas or City Hall was to realize this and Capitalize on it,
    the amount of profit would be untold.

    I surmise that if drivers were to see a train going in the same
    direction that they take on the freeway(s), the Ridership
    would EXPLODE.

    Dallas has been fighting for “walkability” in Downtown.

    And if the people would follow those simple rules:
    “Live Close to where you Work”, and “Work Close to where you Live”,
    the areas in and around the Core would Immediately JUMP.